How do you solve a problem like a touch screen?

PAX Prime was a wonderful learning experience. Before Uncle Slam, the only "gaming" experience we had was the slight gamification in GAME.minder so in many ways, we were flying blind. And the lessons we learned at PAX were several fold:

The Game Itself

The feedback on the game itself was fairly evenly split between:

  • The concept and look - Pretty universally positive. It seems lots of people like the idea of punching a president.
  • The gameplay - Totally un-universal. Some people loved it, others hated it, and everywhere in between.

Some of the best feedback is constructive criticism and one thing we did throughout the show was to analyze the feedback daily. We then incorporated it, and headed to the show floor with a whole new build the following day. If you were one of our big fans who stopped by everyday, you probably noticed that Uncle Slam played a bit differently Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

One big issue we observed on Friday was that the stamina mechanic was causing problems. The way it worked on Friday was that your stamina would get lower the more you moved or punched. If it got low enough, your punches would essentially become useless until you allowed your stamina to build back up. However, the way most people were playing the game meant that stamina wouldn't ever build back up. Most players were just punching and punching and punching which would stretch out the end game as punches became less and less powerful and stayed there.

For Saturday, we significantly changed how much stamina would deplete as you punched and moved which had two effects:

  1. there were far fewer knockdowns and TKOs (as being knocked over is directly tied to stamina)
  2. people seemed to be enjoying the game a lot more

This was really helpful to see in the hands of actual gamers. You never know how people will play a game until you just put it in front of them and watch. And our watching on Friday told us that we needed stamina to work differently. Once we made that tweak, the game worked a little better but more importantly, it became more fun for the players. We did it again on Saturday night and had a similar experience on Sunday. We even had someone stay in the booth for a good 45 minutes and declare Uncle Slam his "Favorite game of the show". That felt really good.


So who is the ideal gamer for a touchscreen boxing game with a cartoon/painterly art style? One thing we discovered is that, despite games like Angry Birds selling approximately 17 copies to every single human on the planet, touchscreen gaming is still a moving target. At Handelabra, we tend towards the idea that buttons should be few and far between. If you have the option of direct manipulation, you'll probably do better to embrace that option. So with Uncle Slam, we went with as much gestural control as was technically possible.

We settled on swiping to punch, swipe and hold to block, and really big tap areas to move.

The most interesting thing about watching people learn this control scheme was who took to it and how quickly. Many PAX attendees are people who have spent years (maybe even decades) using controllers with buttons. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that our two biggest fans (one who made a point to come back at least once a day and the other, previously mentioned, who hung out for 45 minutes) were both under the age 12. Now I'm not going to get into a debate about whether touch screens or buttons are more effective game controls. But one position I will take is that buttons on a touch screen are often worse than either one.

Without years of muscle memory, the younger gamers took to the gestural controls naturally. A lot of "core gamers" either didn't like the game, didn't like the controls or were just plain frustrated.

The important point is that fighting games tend to be very twitchy. Gamers have learned to expect complete and utter control down to the frame from their fighting games. Gestural controls and a physics based fighting system turn several of these expectations on their heads. When faced with this, many experienced gamers simply started moving more quickly and punching more often while younger gamers tended to work with the engine a bit more.

There's clearly still work to do tightening up the engine but the lessons we learned about how people play and more importantly, who is likely to play, have already proven invaluable.


Handelabra as a company strives to sit right in between two worlds. On the one hand, we are an indie developer. The majority of indies wouldn't have taken the time (or the money) to build the booth we did. But on the other side, you have the Firefalls and Skyrims of the show- The companies who spent more on their PAX presence than our entire team makes in a year. Our goal with the Oval Office was to create an eye-catching, compelling, but most of all, fun experience for the PAX crowd. We wanted as many people as possible to play the game so that we could see what was working, and what wasn't.

On this front, PAX Prime was a resounding success. At least 2000 people (but probably closer to 2500) got their hands on the game, put it through its paces, and gave us a wealth of information with which to refine it before release.

Just a couple things that surprised us:

  • Another exhibitor was a preschool teacher and asked us about using Uncle Slam as a bona fide teaching tool!
  • Nearly 400 people signed up to be notified about Uncle Slam, and more than half did so after the iPad had already been given away. In other words, it wasn't just cause we were bribing them. :-)
  • People really enjoyed watching the Get Slammed! tournament on Saturday. There was cheering and everything!
  • Abraham Lincoln clearly needs to be nerfed.

In Conclusion

More so than anything, the biggest takeaway from PAX Prime is this - Gamers are a fun bunch of folks to hang out with. We met so many great people over the weekend. And whether they liked it or not, almost every one of them had good things to say. If they liked it, they gave us words of encouragement. If they didn't like it, they almost universally offered us ideas and directions that might make our game better. And the reason for that is clear. As gamers, we are ALL interested in fun games and PAX is a really great place to meet up and pursue that goal.

Thanks for everything, and we can't wait to get Uncle Slam into your hands, hopefully by Thanksgiving.

RE.minder 2 Preview

Things may have seemed outwardly quiet for the last month or so, but that merely belies the head-down, push-till-it's-done headspace we've all entered here in the Handelabra-verse. We've taken in tons of really terrific feedback over the 100,000 download history of RE.minder and we did our best to boil it all down into a new an improved RE.minder experience. RE.minder 2 is fast approaching "finished" so I figured now might be a good time to detail some of what you can expect when it drops some time (hopefully) before the end of May.

Free for all

First of all, RE.minder will remain a free download from the app store and there are tons of great additions and enhancements coming, completely for free.

The first thing that will jump out at you is the new action bar that pops up when you tap a RE.minder. Look at all those pretty icons! What does it all mean? From left to right:

Share this RE.minder - With a single tap, you can now bundle up a RE.minder in an email and send it to anyone you like. If they have RE.minder installed, a single tap will set on their iPhone. Send it to a group to set a meeting.

Bug Me - We received a lot (like A LOT) of requests for a snooze function. Unfortunately, there are some very real limitations in Apple's local notification system that simply preclude the ability to add a real snooze functionality. Bug Me is the next best thing. Tapping on the bug will toggle the Bug Me function between "Off", "Every Minute" or "Every hour". Your RE.minder will now continue ringing at the interval you choose until you actively turn it off. This is also completely separate from our repeat settings (more on that later).

Delay - In RE.minder 1, a single tap on a fired RE.minder cleared it and sent it to History. Meaning 4 or more taps to set it again (as well as some hunting to find the right one). No more my friends! Tap the delay button and you'll be presented with a time Quick Picker right there in the action bar. 2 taps and you've reset the RE.minder. It even works on RE.minders that haven't fired yet if you just want to put them off a bit.

Advanced Edit - Even though we've worked to make it faster to reschedule a RE.minder, all the advanced options are still there. Just tap on on the edit button to change the title, add notes (see below), use more detailed scheduling, change the sound, change the Bug Me setting or add repetitions.

Clear/Send to History - And when you're all done with a RE.minder, be it fired or not, just tap here to remove it to your history.

What else is new?

You may have noticed a little color in our screenshots. Don't get your eyes checked, they are not deceiving you! RE.minders are now color coded based on how far out they are:

  • Red - Overdue (now with a friendly readout to tell you by how much)
  • Blue - Within the next 24 hours
  • Green - Within a week
  • Yellow - Within a month
  • Orange - Longer than a month

This is a great way to get a feel for what your schedule looks like moving forward.

You also might have noticed that I mentioned Notes above. I'm going to go ahead and admit it right now, notes were an afterthought. When we put them in, we honestly didn't know how much people would use them, if at all. Well you've let us know - WE WANT BETTER NOTES!

We've listened and improved both the way you enter notes, and their visibility in the RE.minder list. Go ahead and write as much as you want in there!

There have also been many smaller improvements to the overall RE.minder experience including a smarter Quick Picker system that remembers what you type, a better History that makes reseting RE.minders quicker and easier, sound groupings and a lot of background intelligence that will make setting RE.minders super fast.

If that was the end of the story, we'd consider it a pretty solid update, but we haven't even started talking about the elephant in the room (or the ad at the bottom of the screen). That my friends, is RE.minder PRO but that's a post for another day!

Every App is Multi-touch (even if it's not)

Back then…

In the mid to late 90's, there was something spreading across the internet like herpes. It promised freedom from the tyranny of table-based layouts, rich animations, vector graphics that could scale to any size and pixel perfect reproduction on any machine, regardless of browser, OS or platform.

That infection was (and is) Flash (Now Adobe, then Macromedia, previously FutureSplash).

What made this technology so appealing to designers was the promise that they could have complete and utter control over the presentation of their designs. No more worrying about how IE4 would render that table vs Netscape 3.2. No more sticking with Arial, Times New Roman and Comic Sans. Build your flash file at 400x600 and everything will always be exactly where you want it. But more than that, you are free to completely re-imagine the entire concept of web navigation. Forget about that back button, forget about users deep-linking to a specific page, your website is now a black box within which you, the designer, are god - usability be damned. In the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, "We were so busy figuring out if we could, we didn't stop to think about whether we SHOULD".

As with most new technologies, it took some time for people to learn what flash was good at and what it wasn't, when to use it and when it was over kill, and probably most importantly, WHY to use flash (some are still fighting to learn this lesson). Flash brought a bunch of new functionality to interface design. For instance, JavaScript offered rollovers but now flash could give you animated rollovers with dynamic hit areas. What this meant to the overall goal of usable interfaces is still up for debate but one thing that DIDN'T change through this r/evolution was the method of interaction - onscreen cursor, driven by a mouse.


With the growing ubiquity of touch-based interfaces, we're seeing the first real paradigm shift in user-interface since Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC back in 1979. While Flash helped us to learn that interfaces could be fluid, living and changing things, touch is teaching us new lessons.

What makes touch such an interesting development is where it's being used primarily - mobile devices. In the mouse and cursor world, the interface can do anything, as long as it can be manipulated with a single point traveling across the screen. Those who maintain this thinking moving into the touch world do so at their peril. Sure, there will always be software that just needs a series of clicks (now taps) to function, but in the mobile world, those too are multi-touch apps.

Why? Because possibly more important than simply incorporating more than one finger on the screen is remembering a touch point that many seem to forget - the hand holding the device. On smartphone handsets, where it's possible to effectively hold the device in one hand and operate it with the thumb of that same hand, this is less of an issue than it is with the new, larger devices like the iPad and Galaxy Tab. On these devices, it's non-trivial to plan for how users will hold it in physical space.

The quintessential multi-touch experience for the iPad is Uzu, a particle/acid trip generator that can track all 10 fingers simultaneously. Obviously, if you are using this app by yourself, the only way to do so is to lay it on your lap or a table. Once you do so, its two-handed nature is a wonder to behold. Yet as fun as it is to play with, it can be awkward if there's no convenient place to lay it down. This becomes even more apparent if you try to thumb-type while holding an iPad in landscape orientation.

Then look at a game like Snood, a game that has historically used interfaces from controllers to mice and keyboards. The touch and drag mechanic works for aiming but the firing mechanic requires you to tap directly on the cannon. During development, it was probably assumed that most people would hold the device with one hand and manipulate the game with the other hand. But in practice, I have found that firing with an index finger is far less accurate than a thumb. Why? Because when held as you see in the second photo below, the thumb is anchored to the device. An index finger is essentially floating over the device. As you then move in to tap, your aim can shift and you tap (or even tap and drag) in a way you didn't intend. Most attribute this to some sort of "fat finger syndrome". Another way to say this is that touch interfaces have no state. When you stop moving a mouse, the cursor stays where you left it. When you finish a tap, the cursor disappears (if it ever existed in the first place).

I often play simple games like snood while I "watch" TV and I can tell you, holding the device like this for an hour leads to quite the cramp in my "firing hand". The designers of snood probably don't think of that game as "multi-touch" and that is why it's a game I can only play in short bursts. They've forgotten (or failed to learn) than in the world of mobile devices, EVERY app is a multi-touch app.

Congratulations - you are now a hardware designer

What this all means for the future of software interface design is that the lines between software and hardware are going to become VERY blurry. The world of flash began to teach us that just because you CAN put the navigation in a spiral around the center of the screen, that doesn't mean you should. Similarly, the touch world is beginning to teach us that EVERY piece of software is multi-touch, even if it's just a series of single taps because the hand holding the device is just another touch point.

This is why it's so awkward to do full typing on the iPad. Apple (paragons of usability though they may sometimes be) completely failed to plan for MOBILE typing on their MOBILE device. When it came time to tackle typing, maybe in an effort to avoid the "big iPod touch" moniker, maybe because it just didn't occur to them, they completely threw out everything they learned about thumb typing from the iPhone and instead, tried to build a touch-based laptop keyboard. If you are in portrait and need to type something on your iPad, your options are simple: double the length of your thumbs, find a table, or contort you body in to the "iPad crunch" as I call it (Knees together, back hunched. See below)

In a world where the software designer has planned for the hardware, you instead get something like this (click for a larger version) :

As we move into 2011, there will undoubtedly be a number of cool innovations in the multi-touch space. But the most important innovation has already happened, and it's simply time for everyone involved in interface design to remember -

Every App is Multi-Touch.

What is good UI?

No Bad UIWhile most of the information garnered at WWDC is strictly confidential, one thing I can talk about is the fact that Handelabra got a chance to sit down with some Apple interface designers to go over our apps from a usability and UI point of view.  Specifically with regards to StyleAssist, some of the incites reaped were terrific.What we've constantly struggled with while building StyleAssist is the balance between design and usability.  The simple fact is that making a thing supremely usable often times means making it ugly.  This is a personal opinion and I know there are MANY people who would disagree with me.  Yes, usability offers it's own beauty but StyleAssist is meant to appeal to a certain type of person - someone who appreciates a certain amount of style (it's right there in the name, after all).  That being said, the one resounding incite that came from our session was this:

More pictures, less UI.

That spoke to the simple brilliance in this quote:

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -Antoine de Saint-Exuper

It's a constant push and pull between usability, design, simplicity and power.  The goal is finding the right amount of power to make a thing worth using while still being simple enough to remain usable, but at the same time not ugly.  It's a tough row to hoe and it was priceless getting another set of eyes to look at it.  Specifically eyes that have done it before, for a company that often times values usability, design and simplicity over power.

What we needed to do was find the "center" of the app and let the UI design itself.  In our case, the center of the app is pictures.  All we needed to do then was find the smallest amount of UI that would facilitate the functionality we wanted to accomplish.  Only then did we start to "design" those UI elements.  The new look of StyleAssist is, to me, a lot more focused and, hopefully, easy to use.

We'll see when we launch it later this summer!